Contest Winners and Answer Announced

The question was “Where in the World is Professor Humphreys?”. You can read the clues here

As I hinted, the first part of the clue had to do with movies. The stanza of poetry I quoted was recited by Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. She’s attempting to distract the evil Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas) from a coming attack on his Swiss mountain hideaway by her father (a mafia chieftain) and James Bond. She does this by feigning a romantic interest in him and invoking the flattering words of the poem. GW309H217

The script to the movie was by Richard Maibaum, who wrote a majority of the Bond films. Rather than make up his own poetry for the scene he drew on the work of the late-Victorian Era poet/playwright James Elroy Flecker. The source work is here; Flecker penned it not long before he died tragically young in Davos, Switzerland.

The slightly wrong answer requested in the puzzle is from the movie: the town of Mϋrren, where the scenes of “Piz Gloria” (Blofeld’s hideout) were filmed. Not far away is the town of Davos where Flecker died, and that is where I was this past week.

Two clever people (chris_y and tomographic) together came close enough to merit a shared prize, you can see their reasoning in the comments section here.

Contest: “Where in the World is Professor Humphreys?”

I am on the road, creating the opportunity for a puzzle with a prize for RBC readers. For the first 24 hours from now (i.e., until January 24 at 8 am Eastern Time) no Internet searches are allowed to solve it, but you can use books, talk to experts etc. As I have no way of enforcing this rule, you are on your honor to follow it.

If you are the first person to solve this puzzle within 24 hours I will donate $100 in your name to one of the charities you pick from the end of this post. After 24 hours have elapsed, googling and other Internet searching is allowed but the prize drops in value to $50.

Submit your answer in the comments section. Do not worry if your answer doesn’t appear immediately. Because I am in a markedly different time zone than usual (hint!), it may take me awhile to approve comments, but the clock will know who was first when I get around to approving comments. Note also that if this post is picked up on any other site (e.g., Washington Monthly) you must post your answer at RBC to be eligible to win.

Here is the clue:

Thy dawn, O Master of the World, thy dawn
For thee the sunlight creeps across the lawn
For thee the ships are drawn down to the waves
For thee the markets throng with myriad slaves
For thee the hammer on the anvil rings
For thee the poet of beguilement sings

Those who are always sure to read RBC on Friday (hint!) probably have a head start in realizing how the clue suggests an answer. But it is a slightly wrong answer. The clue also suggests the correct answer.

To win you must say (1) What the slightly wrong answer is and how the clue links to it and (2) What the correct answer is and how the clue links to it.

Good luck!
Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Seance on a Wet Afternoon

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Most movies fit into particular genres, with plots that in at least some respects are recycled. There is nothing inherently wrong with this: The same thing could after all be said of almost all of Shakespeare’s plays. But just as The Tempest is refreshing because of its novelty, so too are films with unique stories that one can’t really analogize or trace back to any earlier films, or even to a cinematic genre. Love and Death on Long Island and Junior Bonner are two of my favorite movies of this highly original kind. Another is this week’s film recommendation: Seance on a Wet Afternoon.

The film opens as a two-handed play about a strange and strangely compelling married couple. Myra (Kim Stanley) holds seances for her credulous neighbors and is convinced that she has remarkable psychic gifts. Her asthmatic husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) seems afraid to disagree with her. It soon becomes apparent that the two are hatching some sort of bizarre kidnapping and ransom plot, though it would be better said that Myra has hatched it and Billy is too uxorious to resist. Despite the ransom demand, the motive for the planned crime is nothing so simple as money. Many twists of story and anguished human psychology follow, taking the audience on a journey that is suspenseful, dramatic, and ultimately, quite sad.

This 1964 film is the most artistically impressive product of the highly successful, long-running collaboration between British cinema worthies Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes. The two men took on different roles in their various films; in this case Forbes wrote and directed and Attenborough acted and shared producer duties with Forbes.

As producers, the team’s masterstroke was reaching across the pond to cast Kim Stanley, who was then a stage and television actress barely known outside of New York City. As Myra, Stanley gives one of the outstanding performances of the 1960s as the sort of person who is deeply disturbed and fragile yet at that same time exerts enormous power over those around her. Stanley was dubbed The Female Brando by her biographer and she puts on a method acting clinic here in what sadly turned out to be one of few opportunities movie audiences got to see her masterful work. After being nominated for an Oscar for Seance on a Wet Afternoon, she returned to the stage and virtually disappeared from films until 1982, when she garnered another Oscar nomination for Frances.

Forbes’ direction and Stanley and Attenborough’s performances are truly above reproach. The way Billy is lacerated by Myra’s every critical remark and disapproving look, yet also clearly loves her and feels protective of her, is beautifully, painfully brought out. Their marriage is not quite a folie à deux because Billy retains some grip on reality and decency, which serves to create tension in the relationship and the plot that propels the film forward.

Though the script could have been slightly tightened, every line of dialogue rings true and the plot is consistently compelling. Gerry Turpin’s photography is also a virtue, both in the interiors of Myra and Billy’s house but also in, around, and underneath bustling 1960s London. Overall, one gets the sense of a production in which every professional in front of and behind the camera knew exactly what they were doing.

Billy and even moreso Myra will haunt your imagination after you see this movie. Don’t miss it.

Race and the First Four Primary Contests

In talking over the past few weeks to some very smart people about the primaries and caucuses, I have been surprised how many of them assume that Iowa and New Hampshire will be as predictive of the nomination for both parties. I think that’s probably wrong for the reason highlighted in this table.

Primary Election Slide

GOP primary voters/caucus-goers are as white as the driven snow in all four contests (and probably in all the ones afterwards, though I didn’t check). Even in lily white Iowa, they are whiter than the general population. A Republican candidate who wins Iowa’s white Evangelical voters and New Hampshire’s white Establishment voters should have a ride to the GOP nomination that’s as smooth as mayonnaise on Wonder Bread .

But the Democratic primaries are different because the people who participate in them are racially and ethnically diverse. Iowa and New Hampshire are an unusual pair of starting states for Democratic candidates because they are much more monochromatic than the party as a whole. If we assume that race and ethnicity affect candidate preferences (which seems a good assumption this year at least), it’s easy to imagine an scenario in which a Democratic candidate does badly in the first two contests and well in the next two, or vice versa.

Data Notes after the jump Continue Reading…

Overcoming the Power of Suggestion

images I am a mediocre poker player and doubt I could become a good one even if I worked hard at it, which I have no interest in doing. I play because it’s fun, and I keep the stakes low enough that I don’t mind that I usually lose. Also, I find poker enjoyable to write about in terms of human psychology, for example how a logical puzzle about a poker game has analogies to difficult romantic relationships and how a memorable bad luck outcome can tempt us to revise decision rules that are in fact generally reliable. I played in a hand not long ago that fascinated me in terms of the power of suggestion.

In a Texas hold ’em game of eight players, the flop was unusual: 9 of diamonds, 10 of spades and Jack of clubs, in that order. It looked like the dealer was laying down a straight on his own, and even though the order of the flop cards is irrelevant, the fact that the cards came in sequence made it even harder for everyone not to be thinking straight straight straight.

One of the players was in heaven. He had taken a risk by staying in for the flop during the first round of betting with only an 8 and Queen of hearts. With a straight to his name now, it would be very hard to lose and he bet with confidence. Two other players kept betting up to the turn card, which came up a 4 of clubs. One player folded at that point despite having a not bad hand (a 10 of diamonds and Ace of hearts), because he assumed based on the flop that for the other two players to be staying in and betting significantly, there was at least one straight in the offing.

The river card was a Queen of spades. The player with the straight groaned inwardly, but then went through the possibilities for a straight the other remaining player (me) might have. If I had a 7 in the hole and had been hoping for an 8 or had a Queen in the hole and has been hoping for an 8, I was out of luck. In the unlikely event that I was holding an 8 and had been hoping for a Queen (unlikely because he had one of the 8s), it would be a split pot: no tragedy.

He said out loud “The only way I can lose is if you were stupid enough to have a king and be hoping since the flop that a queen could come up”. I took it as a compliment that he bet big after saying this, because it would indeed have been foolish to expect to fill an inside straight like that.

I called his big bet and he turned over his straight. I turned over a king, for a higher straight. Care to guess why I stayed in? Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Stunt Man

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If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.

The late Peter O’Toole signed on to many over the top, unconventional films (no small number of them when he was intoxicated). This resulted in him headlining some legendary stinkers (e.g., Caligula). But it also landed him plum roles in off-beat masterworks such as prior RBC recommendation The Ruling Class and this week’s recommendation: The Stunt Man.

The film was released to only a handful of theaters in 1980 (In O’Toole’s words, “it wasn’t released, it escaped”) because the studios had no faith in it. Some critics found the film pretentious, manipulative and tiresome, yet it ended up on other critic’s best of the year lists and landed three Oscar nominations. Over time it has attracted a cult following, which it very much deserves, despite its flaws.

The Stunt Man is a film that messes with the minds of the characters — and with the audience’s as well — by relentlessly mixing movie fantasy with reality. The unreality is embedded in the plot from the first. An alienated Viet Nam veteran named Cameron (Steve Railsback) is wanted for an unknown crime and flees the police, only to find himself in what seems to be World War I. But it’s actually a war movie being directed by Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). Cameron has a run in with a man he thinks is trying to kill him, but who turns out to be a stunt man shooting a scene. The stunt man dies, and Cameron may or may not be responsible: only the film shot of the event by Cross could reveal the truth. As the police close in, Cross offers to hide Cameron within the movie company if the fugitive will become the stunt man and complete the movie! Cameron agrees, and from then on is manipulated, tricked and exploited by Cross while simultaneously trying to romance the lovely starlet Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey), who seems to have genuine feelings for him…or is that just a manipulation too?

Yes, it’s one hell of a set up. But then again, the script is adapted from a novel in which all the lead characters are insane. The writer/director was Richard Rush, an eccentric, talented but ultimately unsuccessful Hollywood figure whose erratic career path is probably worth a novel of its own. If everyone has one great movie in him, this is Rush’s, and he went for broke, mixing black comedy, action, romance, suspense and satire with largely successful results.

The best thing about the film is Peter O’Toole, who turns in another of his unrestrained, arch performances as Eli Cross. His part is written to be larger than life, and he plays it to the hilt. They say the best roles for British actors are kings and drunks. O’Toole played many of both in his career, and was in real life a King among Drunks in his generation of actors. It wasn’t happenstance that he was nominated for an acting Oscar 8 times yet could never quite seal the deal with Academy Award voters (The Stunt Man was one of those disappointments). His distinctive style and obvious talent draws most of us in, but at the same time his flamboyant performances put a significant minority of people off because they feel that he is just playing Peter O’Toole again.

Other strengths of the film are the memorable score by Dominic Frontiere and some vivid supporting performances which help compensate for Railsback being rather one-note as the film’s hero. Also, true to its name, this film is full of jaw-dropping stunts.

The script, with its movie-in-a-movie, riddle-in-a-riddle structure is a matter of taste. I found it a work of near-genius, but I can understand why other viewers consider it exhausting and even alienating. This scene from the film gives a sense of the proceedings, and the compelling nature of O’Toole’s appropriately theatrical portrayal of a mad genius filmmaker. Give this unusual film a chance and make your own judgement.

R.I.P. Alan Rickman, Classic Movie Villain

The obits focus heavily on his role as Snape in the Potter films, but for me the late Alan Rickman will always be the touchstone for action movie villians. With deepest respect, I post again this Christmastime movie review.

One of the great self-referential pop culture moments of recent years occurred on the TV show 30 Rock, when Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) portentously intoned “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer….Hans Gruber”.

My last Christmas film recommendation features the ultimate Yuletide villain. Unlike the Grinch, he is never redeemed. He would shoot Mr. Potter through the head in style, blow up Scut Farkis with gelignite, and hurl Heat Miser from an 80 story skyscraper. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the best of Christmas cinema baddies: Alan Rickman’s deliciously evil, funny, cultured, intelligent and violent Hans Gruber in this week’s film recommendation, 1988’s Die Hard. Truly, this is a Christmas movie for all members of your family who like watching things explode.

The plot: Rough and ready New York cop John McLain (Bruce Willis) has come to sunny L.A. for Christmas to try to repair his rocky marriage to his wife Holly (Bonny Bedelia). Holly has taken a dream job at the Nakatomi corporation, returned to using her maiden name (ouch!), and thrived as a corporate executive without John around. But before they can get back to serious bickering, John and Holly have to deal with an international team of super-terrorists (think of them as like the EU, but competent) who take over the Nakatomi building. John has his wisecracks, his courage and lots of guns, but the bad guys are more numerous and have cooler accents, especially their über-planner and leader Hans (Rickman).

This is a rock ’em sock ’em action film leavened with many pricelessly funny lines, most of them voiced by Willis or Rickman. The plot has many surprising twists and turns as Hans’ plan unfolds, McLain throws spanners into the works, and then Hans adapts, contingency by carefully planned contingency. Not much in the way of traditional holiday themes, but there are some gifts and Santa hats and pine trees and such around, so there it is, your final Christmas film recommendation.

After you have watched this thrilling movie, you might consider what you would do for a dying friend who had a special last request…

Merry Christmas to all you orphans of a bankrupt culture.

What the Chunnel Crisis Reveals About Immigrants

The tunnel under the English Channel connects two nations with markedly different economic situations and government policies. Which would appeal more to immigrants?

Great Britain has one of the hottest job markets in the developed world. Unemployment is at a 10-year low and labor force participation is at a 44-year high. Meanwhile, the size of government and the availability of benefits have been contracting for the past 5 years and are slated to do so even more in the future.

France in contrast has rising, double-digit unemployment, and a regulatory climate that makes starting one’s own business extraordinarily challenging. But under the Socialist government, the state is massive and benefits are generous.

Which side of the Chunnel would you expect thousands of immigrants to be risking their lives to reach? If, consistent with stereotype, immigrants were spongers by nature they would be clustered on the British side, ready to risk everything to run from a job rich-economy and into a skyver’s paradise. But in reality they are on the French side, desperate to get to the employment opportunities that could await them on the other side of the Chunnel. Indeed, some of them have died trying to flee from a land of government benefits to a land of work.

From that, draw your own conclusions about the values and dreams of immigrants.

Good Luck to Harold Pollack, and Welcome to Larry Kudlow

The New Harold Pollack

The New Harold Pollack

I should have seen this coming, but still it makes me sad. Harold Pollack’s 4 x 6 index card of financial advice was perhaps the most read, cited and tweeted RBC post in history. It drew coverage from Washington Post, Money Magazine, Vanguard and Motley Fool among many, many others. It is now a book that is getting tremendous press everywhere.

I thus understand Harold’s decision to move on from RBC to take up a regular investment advice column at Wall Street Journal and a “Pollack’s Mad Money” television show on CNBC, which fired Jim Cramer today to make room for Harold. Congratulations my friend, you will be missed.

However, with every ending comes a new beginning, so it is therefore time to welcome Larry Kudlow to RBC. Larry will have big shoes to fill, but is strongly committed to writing here about poverty, inequality and the need to expand the social welfare net and raise taxes on the wealthy. The only thing holding him back so far has been that he doesn’t know any poor people, but Harold, gracious in transition, has agreed to introduce to him to one very soon.